Introduction: What I Have Learned So Far
I am admittedly no expert on being a husband and father. My stats are still quite young compared with the seasoned vets of this great vocation: married eight years this October, raising four children (the oldest just turned seven), and I have certainly made my share of mistakes. And yet, I have learned a good lesson or two worth sharing. This article is my attempt to give you my #1 lesson from what I have learned so far as a Catholic family man and a practical challenge for putting it into practice today.
Lesson: We Must Humble Ourselves
Here’s the reality: We are all sinners – broken and in deep need of Jesus. Even after Baptism, we carry and must contend with the enduring effects of original sin (ex. concupiscence), as well as the weight of each new sin we commit, and the relentless impact on us from the multitude of sins committed by others around us. We desperately need Jesus – not just once, or on an annual retreat, but every moment of every day.
To deny this is to construct our own version of reality by exalting ourselves in ways which are not true. Such a denial stems from the deadly sin of pride and results in losing ourselves into even greater pride, because in rejecting this reality we become more and more removed from what should be at the core of our relationship with Jesus: our honest acknowledgement of how much we deeply need Him.
This is the sense in which the Saints mortify themselves. In reading some of their writings their self-abasement might seem harsh at times, but it comes from an acute understanding of their very real brokenness and deep need for Jesus. It follows that from this conviction one becomes more fully open to receive Jesus, which is an increased capacity for entering into and enjoying a deeper intimacy with Him.
The truth of this beautiful exchange is found all throughout Sacred Scripture. Here are some particularly clear examples:
- “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you (James 4:10).”
- “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matthew 4:12).”
- “So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time (1Peter 5:6).”
- And my favorite: “but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9).”
It is incredibly helpful to live with our brokenness, our sin, and our deep need for Jesus constantly before us. This keeps us truly humble and humility gives us the spiritual eyesight to see clearly. It changes the way we see ourselves (resulting in greater prayer and penance as we pursue our need for greater intimacy with our Lord), it changes the way we see others (resulting in greater mercy and service toward them as we acknowledge their difficult struggles and see the opportunity to serve them as an opportunity to serve Jesus), and it changes the way we see Jesus (resulting in greater love, gratitude, and praise of Him who we come to know more and more as our greatest Treasure). Like the heart to the body, humility pumps life into every aspect of who we are and our spiritual lives depend on it.
St. Augustine explained it this way in one of his letters: “I would wish you to place yourselves with all your love under Christ, and to pave no other way in order to reach and to attain the truth than what has already been paved by him who, as God, knows the weakness of our steps. This way is, in the first place, humility; in the second place, humility; in the third place, humility…As often as you ask me about the Christian religion’s norms of conduct, I prefer to give no other answer than, humility.”
We must also remember that to fully put our faith in Jesus is to put our faith in the Catholic Church He instituted. “Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1814).” We need Jesus and His Catholic Church. This is the way He comes to us most fully in this earthly life. When one is humbly aware of his need for ongoing formation and conversion, he gives greater priority to drawing closer to God in the Sacred Scriptures, Sacred Tradition, and the Sacramental life of the Catholic Church.
Finally, humility does not mean going passive. Jesus was meek and humble of heart, and at the same time, He was always engaged. Even when He allowed His enemies to crucify Him, He actively gave Himself up, having the power to lay down His life and the power to take it up again (John 10:18). Humility presupposes grace, yet it is also a choice to actively participate with that grace. We must actively choose to pursue a posture of humility and receptivity toward God.
Unfortunately I cannot necessarily tell you exactly how to master this mountain or what it is like at the summit as I am still in the thick of the ascent myself. But even while I cannot give you a detailed map for victory, I can point you to the Victor who has already won and who seeks to guide us all to the ultimate Triumph: Jesus. Go to Him and let Him guide you.
My #1 lesson for husbands and fathers is to pray and work for a continual disposition of humility. I don’t think it matters your age, how long you have been married, or how many children you have – this is THE mountain and it will be THE mountain until the end of your earthly life. As you advance up this climb, you advance up all others.
A Good Action You Can Take Today: Wash the Feet of Your Family
We can advance in humility by making acts of humility. One act of humility I have found helpful is to periodically wash the feet of my wife and children…literally.
Looking at the great act of love and humility that Jesus made in washing the feet of His Apostles (John 13:1-17) and seeking to imitate it, I recommend the following:
Step 1 – Usually I prepare by entering into a good Sacramental Confession earlier in the day and then Mass where I receive Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. Thanks and praise be to God!
Step 2 – Fill a bowl with water. This can be very simple, just a bowl with water, or you can amp it up by using something like a basin and even putting some flower petals in the water for added effect.
Step 3 – Grab something for drying. I have used something as simple as a paper towel or gone as dignified as a good cloth draped over my arm like a fine dining waiter. It’s up to you and the context of the moment.
Step 4 – At an appropriate time, call together your wife and children and ask them to sit down. When they do, give them a brief introduction by speaking to them from the depths of your heart. Put it into your own words and simply express your sorrow for your faults and failings (mentioning specific actions and/or omissions) and tell them how much you love them. It is good to literally say you are sorry and ask “Will you forgive me?” Wait for their answer. I also like to remind them of our Heavenly Father who loves us perfectly, and then I promise to do my best to be more like Him.
Step 5 – Take the water and your instrument for drying in hand and lower yourself. Go from person to person, washing, drying, and looking up into the eyes of each saying, “I love you and I serve you.” I like to add in a kiss on their feet and the sign of the Cross on their foreheads with the words, “I bless you in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit.”
That’s it. It might seem a bit strange, but growing in humility is supposed to take you out of your comfort zone. I hope you give it try and let us all know how it goes by adding a comment below.
Thank you for your comments. I am fairly certain that no matter how far along the road you are, Humility remains a problem. It is a frequent topic at my confessions. Your words ring true and the practical nature of you engagement with your kids is awesome.
Thanks for keeping the passion for effective Fatherhood alive!!
How does one balance “being humble” with trying to form your child when the behavior you’re trying to correct is disrespect towards the parent?
Stan, My experience is that children don’t start being disrespectful on their own. First gain understanding of the reason behind the offense and correct it by addressing the reason behind the reason. This sometimes takes a certain amount of humbleness. Kids see right through us when we are wrong the same way we see through them. If it’s disrespect towards another than it should be as easy as identifying why they are not being respectful and helping them understand why respect is important.
Jim, I’m married 34 yrs with 8 children (32-15). I used to wash the feet of my wife and children every year on Holy Thursday prior to going to liturgy at the parish. Regrettably, we abandoned that practice when my oldest were in their late-teens. About 15 yrs ago, I spent Lent focusing on growth in humility. One of the results was this extended litany of humility.
Jim, thank you for taking the time to write about one of the biggest challenges faced daily, pride. As you explained, humility grappled with grace is a wonderful medicine.
Excellent practice! Many of my mistakes as a father can, in some way, be traced to selfish pride or ego. As leaders, we should show our families how to self-correct. There is tremendous strength in humility.